Issue 8.1: February/March 2005

Traveling Man

story by Leslie Lang
photos by Dana Edmunds

 
James Rumford at home
in Manoa valley.

Ten years ago, I took a tour of Honolulu’s Mission Houses Museum, where I saw a man working at a replica nineteenth-century printing press. He was dressed in the style of the day—pants, suspenders, shirt of the period, printer’s apron, handmade shoes. He inked the hand-set type and used a wooden peel to hang a freshly printed page on an overhead rack. His eyes sparkled as he showed us a small but extraordinarily thick Hawaiian language Bible and when he described how he used poi to bind books.

His name was James Rumford, though I didn’t know it at the time. It was clear he had a passion for what he was doing; his interpretive role of a foreigner employed by the missionaries to operate the press was a highlight of the tour. I certainly didn’t anticipate, standing in that crowd of visitors, that one day he would be an award-winning children’s book writer and illustrator and a good friend who would even dedicate a book to me.

When I took a job at the museum, I learned Jim was much more than a talented role player. At home one day I discovered, handwritten in an old book, a family chant that had been lost for generations. Fascinated, Jim asked to see it, and I learned he read and spoke Hawaiian. He generously offered to publish the chant and an English translation, and I learned he was a papermaker and printer who makes elegant, handcrafted books through his company, Manoa Press, which he operates in a tiny studio off his garage.

And then his story got even more interesting. He met Harriett Oberhaus, a retired librarian and storyteller who encouraged him to write down and illustrate an original children’s tale he’d told her. Afterward, researching children’s book publishers, he noticed many of his favorite books were published by Houghton Mifflin. He sent the Boston company his manuscript, The Cloudmakers, with a

letter that essentially said, "I like your books. I hope you like mine." They did. Two months after he mailed the package, he had a contract for the first of what has become a long list of successful children’s books.

Like many of Jim’s books, The Cloudmakers is a fictional story crafted to illustrate a historical event, in this case the spread of Chinese papermaking to the Arab world. Ancient Arab historians noted that during a 751 AD battle, several Chinese papermakers were captured. The Cloudmakers tells a story of a Chinese grandfather and grandson taken prisoner during that battle. Trying to facilitate their release, the young boy blurts out that his grandfather can make clouds—sheets of Chinese paper, it turns out—and they are given seven days to prove it, using only their rope shoes, a walking stick and a worn carrying sack. Jim’s watercolor illustrations for the book were called "lyrical" by Kirkus Reviews, which said they "perfectly complement the spare, engaging text."

Jim, who grew up in Long Beach, California, is fifty-six, with short brown hair and a tidy, graying mustache and beard. He’s an intellectual yet easy to talk to; confident but down-to-earth. When something intrigues him, his whole face lights up—his eyebrows rise, his head tilts and his mouth opens in a delighted smile. He is gregarious and has a great sense of humor.

 
An illustration from Calabash Cat,
inspired by artists' engravings from Chad.

He and his wife Carol, whom he married in 1969, spent the first half of the ’70s teaching English as Peace Corps volunteers in Chad and then Afghanistan. Together they wrote a book on Chadian Arabic. They lived in Rwanda for four years, where Jim was a Fulbright scholar, chaired the English Department of the National University of Rwanda and wrote a book on the Rwandan language. They had a baby, their son Jonathan, and then lived in Saudi Arabia for two years, where Jim taught English.

Since 1976, he and Carol have lived in Hawaii. Their home in Manoa Valley is filled with books and objects they’ve collected around the world. Jim has restored much of the older house himself, building glass-front cabinets and French doors, enclosing the porch and more. The phrase "Renaissance man" is overused, but it doesn’t seem a stretch when applied to Jim.

A linguist who speaks more than a dozen languages, Jim has drawn on his fascination with languages, alphabets and numbers for several of his children’s books, including his latest, Sequoyah, the Cherokee man who gave his people writing. Sequoyah tells the story of the Cherokee man who, in the 1820s, invented a Cherokee writing system—one based on syllables rather than letters. The New York Public Library named Sequoyah one of the 100 best children’s books for 2004. There’s a Monster in the Alphabet tells the story of the alphabet through the tale of Cadmus, the Phoenician who brought the alphabet to Greece. Nine Animals and the Well, a fable that’s also a counting book, illustrates the history of numbers as written in India, Arabia, North Africa and Europe.

Jim taught himself to read and write hieroglyphs for Seeker of Knowledge, which tells the true story of Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion. As a young boy, Champollion declared he would be the first to decipher Egypt’s hieroglyphs—and he was. One can understand why Jim, who translated his story into hieroglyphs for the book’s cover pages, was fascinated.

"I’ve always thought, all my life, about how big the world is and how much there is to learn, but I get the feeling we’re going the opposite way, turning in on ourselves," he says. "I’m just going to keep trying to expand kids’ minds about this world and all the things that are in it."

 
His book Traveling Man does just that. It tells of the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler Ibn Batutta, who took a thirty-year, 75,000-mile journey through the Muslim world back when many believed the world was flat. A rich and beautiful book, Traveling Man’s words wander the pages along a "road," meandering through old-style Islamic maps and around Arabic calligraphy. In the margins are words and sayings and rhinos hiding in tall reeds, all bordering elegant watercolors that shimmer with their deep golds and blues and reds. Named a 2001 Smithsonian Notable book and ALA Notable Children’s Book, Traveling Man received a glowing review in the New York Times and was praised on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.

Several of Jim’s children’s books are about Hawaii, such as The Island-below-the-Star, called one of the ten best children’s books of the year by a New York Times critic. The story follows five brothers, each with a special skill pertaining to Polynesian navigation, who sail to and become the first people in the Hawaiian islands.

Its newly released sequel, Dog-of-the-Sea-Waves, tells a story of the youngest brother befriending a monk seal and celebrates the Islands’ environment. Most pages have beautiful and detailed margin drawings of Hawaii’s unique and endangered plants and creatures, all carefully described in end notes. "I want to make kids all over the United States, all over the world, sensitive to this," he says. "In some ways, Dog-of-the-Sea-Waves is one of my favorites because I get to show people by my pictures how beautiful I think Hawaii is."

It’s one of my favorites, too, because it’s the one dedicated to me.

What now? He’s working on a children’s picture book retelling the epic tale of Beowulf using only words that can be traced to Old English. A Chuva da Manga (Mango Rain), a picture book he illustrated and wrote in Portuguese, is being published in Brazil. He also has eight or ten as-of-yet unpublished manuscripts completed and sitting around his house.

A couple of years ago on the Big Island, Jim and Carol and my husband and I floated lazily in a thermally heated pond near the ocean. The pond rose and lowered with the tide; when we finally got out, the tide was high, and a grassy ledge on the pond’s inside edge had been covered by water. Jim pointed to the grass and said, in his exuberant way, "Wait! I need to stand on that grass for a minute and pretend there’s been global warming and Central Park is underwater."

He did, and we watched that imagination soar, the sparks of his brain almost visible as—just for a moment—he crafted a whole story in his head. And then he moved on to his next idea.